Art's Golden Age Returns

There's an exhibit running at the Central House of Artists insured at Lloyd's of London for $13.5 million.

But that's not the reason most local art-lovers won't want to miss "The Golden Age of Russian Painting." They won't want to miss it because such celebrated works (circa 1845-1916) as Mikhail Vrubel's "Girl on a Persian Carpet" and Nikolai Yaroshenko's "Female Student" are among the 57 paintings and 32 drawings on display, a great many of which are famous enough to be featured in the pages of Soviet-era art textbooks.

Today, all of these paintings - all of them by Russian artists with one exception, a painting by Armenian artist Martiros Saryan - belong to Ukraine as the result of a quirk of history: A Soviet law mandating the reallotment of cultural property resulted in dozens of works of art being shuttled around the former Soviet Union, across borders that mean a great deal more today than 40 years ago.

"People always assume that if it's a Russian painting, it must be at the Tretyakov Gallery and, if it's jewelry or weapons, it must be at the Kremlin Collection," said Alexander Zaretsky, director of the Art Courier art transport company and the exhibit's organizer.

"But that's wrong," he said. "Actually, there are a great deal of similarly valuable works by famous Russian artists in provincial museums or in the museums of former Soviet republics."

In fact, all of these works by Russian masters now belong to Ukraine because that is where they were located when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The Kiev Museum of Russian Art only allowed the paintings to travel to Russia after the Russian Culture Ministry signed a contract that it would not attempt to repossess the work - not the famed Ivan Kramskoy paintings depicting peasants or the Vasily Vereshagin military scenes of the Spanish-American war, not the romantic seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky or the colorful still lifes by Boris Kustodiev, Pyotr Konchalovsky and Ivan Shishkin, a copy of whose "Morning in a Pine Forest" painting (not at the exhibit) was made into a well-known chocolate wrapper.

"The most important issue here is that the exhibit contains 80 percent of the Kiev Museum's contents," Zaretsky said, adding that the Kiev Museum was quite brave to risk sending such a substantial portion of its holdings to another country.

What share of the Kiev collection that was not provided by Soviet-era redistribution to Kiev from Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s, is based on the collection of the Tereshenko family, the owners of a sugar refinery and 19th-century Ukraine's primary art collectors.

In 1918, the Tereshenko collection was nationalized and became the property of the revolutionary government. During the next two years, it was further expanded with additions from nationalized private collections all over Russia and Ukraine.

Interestingly, the rivalry over ownership of Russian paintings isn't new to the post-Soviet era: It dates to the late 19th century, to Fyodor Tereshenko and Pavel Tretyakov.

Moscow collector and merchant Tretyakov donated his home and his private collection of art to the city of Moscow in 1892. The collection was later formally named the Tretyakov Gallery.

If he were alive today, Tretyakov would likely envy the Kiev Museum its collection of Russian art.

According to reports, Tretyakov was more than a little bothered by the fact that he once failed to acquire Ivan Kramskoy's "A Peasant with His Horse's Bridle" because the Tereshenkos beat him to it.

"I have one large study of a Russian farmer in the pose farmers use to discuss business," Kramskoy wrote in 1883, in a letter offering the piece to Tereshenko, who later purchased the work, also on display at the exhibit.

The Tereshenkos were friendly with a great many Russian painters, who helped them to augment their collection on a regular basis.

"The Golden Age of Russian Painting" (Zolotoi Vek Russkoi Zhivopisi) runs through May 10 at the Central House of Artists, located at 10 Krymsky Val. Metro Oktyabrskaya. Tel. 238-9634/1245. Tues. to Sun. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed May 1.